On March 28, Russian media presented information that members of the Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner may have been spotted in the East Ghouta region (southwestern Syria), coordinating a “normalization of the post-war situation.” The same sources also claimed that Wagner forces are currently involved in fighting on the side of Omar al-Bashir in South Sudan (Lenta.ru, March 28). This information might have crucial meaning in ascertaining both the actual and prospective tasks performed by Wagner versus other Russian PMCs (see Part One, EDM, April 19).
Indeed, Wagner is by no means a trivial example of an ordinary Russian PMC: its composition, command and control (C2), and actual tasks performed make it distinctive from a standard PMC, whose prime undertakings generally boil down to “combat support” missions—not carrying out military operations.
In terms of makeup and recruitment, Wagner is a complex combination of elite professionals (apparently, recruited through the channels controlled by the security services, or “siloviki”), semi-amateurs (recruited via war veteran and Cossack organizations), and “cannon fodder” (former criminals, amateurs and persons with a shady past) (Znak.com, February 13). Various media and analytical investigations—such as the one carried out by the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) in 2016—pertaining to the deaths of Russian recruits in Ukraine and Syria, have revealed that the majority of casualties have not been members of Russian elite special forces (RBC, March 23, 2016). Some sources are even more straightforward in their assessments, arguing that “top-notch professionals do not join Wagner” (Lenta.ru, February 21, 2018).
This, however, might be an underestimation: members of Wagner are being prepared at the Molkino (Krasnodar Krai) training center (its modernization has been handsomely financed by the Russian Ministry of Defense), where the 10th special forces military intelligence service (GRU) brigade is stationed. Thus, there clearly are visible ties between Wagner and both the GRU and the defense ministry (Fontanka.ru, August 21, 2017). That said, the full authority standing behind Wagner may be a “triumvirate” composed of the GRU, the Ministry of Defense, as well as the Federal Security Service (FSB). Reporting by the independent Russian magazine RBC from two years ago suggests that, in Latakia and Aleppo, Russian so-called “special forces” (approximately 2,500 persons) operations were coordinated by the GRU and FSB (RBC, August 25, 2016). Furthermore, as previously mentioned, in 2016 it was claimed that Wagner constituted the vanguard of Russian military operations on land, and its effectiveness was high. This assessment, however, fails to capture some crucial transformations that have occurred between 2014 and 2018.
The majority of sources (Fontanka.ru, August 21, 2017) trace the emergence of Wagner to 2014, when it took an active part in hostilities in the Donbas region. In the second stage of this private military company’s history (from March 2016), its effectiveness reached a zenith, culminating in Wagner’s assistance in the capture of the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (see EDM, March 29, 2016; March 22, 2017).
Success was secured by a combination of the following factors:
– the relatively high quality of weaponry employed by Wagner forces (T-72 main battle tanks, BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, D-30 122-millimeter howitzers);
– the quantity of personnel (out of 2,349 combat troops, the well-trained “core” played an essential role); and
– a steady structure of the C2 system (central command and three branches responsible for different tasks).
However, at the third stage of the company’s brief history (from January 2017), Wagner has experienced some crucial transformations, reflected in both the nature of the tasks/operations performed (mainly the protection of the Shaer natural gas/oil field and similar sites) and the decreasing quality of weaponry available as well as of its personnel more generally. For example, investigative reporting suggests that in the past year or so, the main sources of new recruits have been Cossacks and foreigners (primarily, from Donbas). This shift is chiefly associated with a change in the financial situation: in the past, financial backing came from Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin (see EDM, February 26, 2018), but since 2017 (after an alleged dispute between the billionaire and the defense ministry), the Syrian government has been covering Wagner’s main expenses, which has resulted in a decline in its operational capabilities. However, this situation may be temporary (Fontanka.ru, August 21, 2017).
The tasks and responsibilities performed by Wagner mean this formation cannot be classified as just an ordinary Russian PMC. Its “business-related” activities (such as protecting oil and gas fields in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan), which clearly cater to specific business interests (Svoboda.org, June 27, 2017), are notably supplemented by directives coming from the Russian state. Participation in hostilities in southeastern Ukraine and in Syria (and also potentially in Sudan and the Balkans), has effectively turned this “private company” into a Kremlin weapon of “hybrid”/non-linear warfare.
At the same time, the staunch opposition coming from the siloviki to legally recognize Russian PMCs (Kommersant.ru, March 27, 2018; see EDM, April 19) suggests that these forces may be directly interested in employing Wagner (and similar entities) for specific economic and political objectives in existing regional conflicts. The Russian Federation maintains a long tradition of sending “tourists” to emerging conflicts and then using “nas tam net” (“we are not there”) rhetoric to deny participation—which dates back to Soviet involvement (or claimed “non-involvement”) in conflicts in the Middle East in the 1970s. Under current circumstances, the combination of deniability, fear of massive losses in manpower (informed by the war in Afghanistan and later by the first Chechen conflict, which both resulted in growing public discontent with the ruling elites) as well as economic interests (leading to the top of the power vertical and apparently the siloviki) makes it highly unlikely that Moscow will allow for the legalization of PMCs—at least until the civil war in Syria comes to an end.
It is worth emphasizing that the prospect of being killed in a regional conflict does not appear to discourage those Russians ready to join PMCs. Indeed, as of March, the number of Wagner forces reportedly reached 4,840 people (Lenta.ru, March 13, 2018)—a visible increase over previous periods. Decent wages and a relatively generous (by Russian standards) compensation package (Chvk.info, accessed April 14) make for a powerful stimulus likely to keep the stream of volunteers flowing.